“Twenty years from now,” wrote Mark Twain, “you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Ramona McKean, author of Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon: A Memoir of China, did exactly that when she heeded the message of an inner voice that suggested her life’s calling might be found thousands of miles from her Canadian home. It’s a must-read for women over 40 who want to be inspired, to find their purpose and, ultimately, to make a difference.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: In 2004, you fulfilled a longstanding dream of living and working abroad. Why did you happen to choose China?
A: In the midst of despair in early 2004, I knew I needed to do something radically different with my life but didn’t know what. That changed the day I heard an inner voice tell me straight out I was going to China. That’s how I happened to choose China. I trusted the voice and had a feeling China would play a very significant role in my life.
Q: How much did you know about your destination prior to going there?
I was moderately up-to-date with current events and moderately knowledgeable with the basics of 20th Century Chinese history. Before leaving Canada I made a point of researching Harbin, the northern city where I’d be teaching. I also talked to many people who’d been to China. Of course, no amount of book learning and conversing could adequately measure up to my experiencing China first hand.
Q: What were your initial impressions of the country in 2004 and of its people when you first arrived?
A: Fascinating and exciting! The energy was different; I could almost hear the crackling of aliveness combined with a sense of urgency. Demolition and construction seemed simultaneous, they happened so quickly. A colleague quipped: “What’s the national bird of China?” Answer: “The crane.” Cranes outlined the skyline whichever way I looked.
The people I encountered were usually reserved until I smiled. I often got huge smiles back. Sometimes people were curious about my nationality. Occasionally, when they learned “Canadian,” they’d bow and say “Bai Qiu En” (sounds a bit like bye-chee’yo-enn). It means Bethune. I felt deeply touched. Dr. Norman Bethune was a Canadian doctor who helped the Chinese during war time. All middle school students read the essay Mao wrote about the “selfless Canadian hero.”
I worked at the Harbin University of Science and Technology, teaching English to first year students. I quickly discovered they were far less sophisticated than my senior high school students in Canada. Their prompt cleaning of the blackboards at the end of class took me off guard. It was something they just did. Right from the start, I also noticed respect, appreciation and good-naturedness. They were a lot of fun.
Too many smokers! At my university, smoke billowed from offices into the hallway, taking me back to previous times in Canada. Too many drivers were bold and audacious, and almost nobody used seatbelts. (Often there were no seatbelts.) As a pedestrian, I had to be extra mindful.
The Chinese food was amazing and inexpensive. Western fast food joints—MacDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC—charged much higher prices. I went into those establishments for one reason only: their Western toilets, hot water and soap. I still needed my own tissue. In restaurants and everywhere else in China, tipping was illegal.
These are just a few initial impressions. My prequel will be full of my impressions and experiences. Please bear in mind that China is a rapidly developing country. What I’ve said above may be different now.
Q: What was the hardest – and, conversely, the easiest – thing to adjust to in your conscious decision to make a major lifestyle change?
A: The hardest thing before leaving Canada was managing my emotions. I felt thoroughly overwhelmed and also extremely excited with such a radical choice. The easiest part was my complete and utter knowing that going to China was singularly the right thing for me to do.
Once in China, the hardest part of my adjustment was missing my grown-up kids intensely. And Christmas? I could not have predicted how desolate I’d feel being so far from home. The easiest thing was falling in love with China. It happened so naturally that it took about two months for me to clue in. Like the experience of falling in love with a person, my feelings were so deep they often hurt. Being in a serious car accident and having to leave only added to the depth and complexity of my feelings. John Fraser in The Chinese, Portrait of a People expressed exactly how I felt with leaving: “Like many foreigners who went to China and have known the Chinese, a part of me feels in permanent exile.”
Q: You indicate in the opening pages that sometimes an invisible hand directs the course of one’s life. Do you believe the major events in our personal journeys are predestined or are we still mostly creatures of free will?
A: I lay many long hours in a Canadian hospital bed contemplating that difficult question. I asked myself: “Was falling in love with China and almost dying there a matter of fate, predestination or free will?” My thoughts are not easy to express but I’ll try my best.
First I’ll mention my way of defining the terms. As you can see, I’m throwing fate into the mix. Fate is neutral and impersonal and implies events that are meant to happen. Predestination is used synonymously by some people. To me it differs in that it suggests a plan, not neutral, that’s devised by another, greater power. (That awesome, mysterious force is not male, but I shall call it God.) Humans have no control with either fate or predestination.
Free will is the opposite, allowing humans the ability to make conscious choices. The key word to note is “conscious.” People can only exercise free will to the extent that they’re conscious. For instance, in my life I’ve too often made choices dictated by unconscious dynamics; that is, by unhealed emotional wounds and habitual responses. To be truly “free,” my will must involve intelligent self-reflection. For the major events, my will must also be accompanied by courage and strength. I’ve found that the more courageous I can be, the stronger I become. Strength I never knew possible comes to me from God.
You asked me if I thought predestination or free will characterized the lives of humans. I have a hard time with the idea of predestination. Maybe the issue is one of consciousness, i.e., the conscious awareness that we are all part of the greater power, God; that in essence, we’re all one. I believe the more we each heal our personal pasts (including what’s been passed down through our families), the freer we are to determine our own direction. I believe that when God sees us constructively use whatever awful stuff life throws our way, “it” says: “Here is one to enter into co-creative partnership with me. Hooray!” When we maintain an open and humble attitude, mindfully attuned with God, a new direction is created together. It’s like a delicate, dynamic dance with the Divine to co-create a destiny.
Especially after the accident, I had an uncanny feeling that China was part of my destiny. Do you remember I said a voice took me to China? When I was trapped in wreckage I heard the voice again. It used the first person and in a calm, matter of fact way said: “I don’t know what this is all about but I do know it’s part of a bigger picture and it’s a good picture and it involves me and China.” I’m grateful that I somehow had the presence of mind to notice and remember.
Q: According to Amy Tan in Opposite of Fate, a Book of Musings, the best stories often come from the worst experiences. As a stranger in a strange land, you certainly endured one of the worst experiences imaginable – a head-on-collision that nearly proved fatal. Tell us about this nightmare experience and what gave you the strength to survive it.
A: It was Spring Festival time (aka Chinese New Year). A bilingual Chinese friend and I were travelling in a poor rural area in the south, far from where I taught in the north. I realized our driver was sleepy when I saw a bus headed straight at us. We were on the wrong side of the road. The drivers’ trying to avoid each other didn’t work. We collided head-on at a slight angle. In no time I found myself pinned between the crushed front of the van and the right passenger door. Given I had no seatbelt, it’s miraculous I didn’t go through the windshield. My friend, seated behind me, was injured too. We helplessly watched our driver die. It took quite a while for rescuers (private citizens) to show up. The events that followed were unusual and some downright bizarre; I have included them all in my book. My friend’s father, cousin and sister slept on a hospital floor for three nights to take care of me until a 26 year old colleague flew 2200 km from Harbin. He got me released from the hospital and saw me safely back to Canada.
In Canada, I found out the true extent of my injuries: 7 ribs broken, both legs broken and right knee crushed. How I survived crude rescue, two questionable Chinese hospitals and two flights home is beyond me, especially considering my right lung lining was punctured too.
What gave me the strength to survive? Shock in the form of denial helped. I was calm, trusting and present; it didn’t occur to me I might die. The voice helped. It told me goodness was in the works and I’d be able to derive purpose from awfulness. Most of all, it was the love of my Chinese friends and students who with all their hearts told me: Da nan bu si, bi you hou fu, “If a big bad event doesn’t kill you, then you are guaranteed happiness and extraordinary good fortune.” Their love and faith sustained me.
Q. It sounds like the voice provided you with an epiphany. Tell us about how you derived “purpose from awfulness” and in what ways you feel you’re making a difference.
A: “I don’t know what this is all about but I do know it’s part of a bigger picture and it’s a good picture and it involves me and China.”
The voice did not explicitly tell me what my purpose was. Rather, it opened me up to a new world of possibility. I knew it would involve writing. China had made a profound impression on me, both the culture and the people. I wanted to build a narrative bridge of understanding between us and China. That bridge is now built, Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon.
Something that really concerns me is how our Western media deliberately creates fear and misperception about China. As far as I’m concerned, an “us vs. them” mentality is plain bad news. China’s a big country developing fast. What wisdom is there in our casting them as the “enemy”? The Chinese are people, just like us. Why not choose to get to know them better? The mutual benefits would be enormous!
It’s time for a more balanced and fair picture to be painted. Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon does this and also gives readers plenty to self-reflect upon. It’s a story told honestly from my heart to readers’ hearts.
Just imagine all our children and grandchildren inheriting a more friendship based world! That’s what I stand for, and that’s how I am making a difference.
Q: You mention using your story as a bridge between cultures. Is the bridge on your cover meant to be symbolic of this? Tell us about your book’s striking cover and how you chose your title.
A: Yes, I intend the bridge as a symbol linking East and West. The dragon, which happens to be the most important creature in Chinese folklore, is the national symbol of China. The phoenix is a creature thought to bring goodness. In most Chinese legends the phoenix does not burn like its Western counterpart. In my cover design, the phoenix represents me, finally able to rise from the flames of physical and emotional trauma. In terms of the physical, I required three surgeries and well over a year of rehab to walk normally. As for emotional trauma, I was not able to experience release until the day I launched this book, February 10, 2013, eight years to the day after the accident.
As regards the title, I did not choose it. It’s more apt to say it chose me. I wanted something “perfect” that included the words “dragon” and “dancing.” Try as I might, I couldn’t think of it. Then one afternoon the words “Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon” flashed into my head. I almost fell over in awe. A little later that same day while shopping, I pulled a red top from a clothes rack and was amazed to see its front sequined with a Chinese dragon. It was like God saying: “My dear, I am so with you.” I leave it to readers to experience how perfectly Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon fits my story.
Q: If the chance presented itself to go back to the country that nearly killed you, would you take it?
A: The chance did not “present itself”; I actually made it happen. I returned to China in 2008 to study Mandarin at a university. I had to overcome a lot of fear to do that. I expect I’ll return yet again when my book is available in China.
Q: Tell us about the development of Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China and the takeaway value you believe it holds for your readership.
A: The dream to write about China started to germinate the day a voice told me I was going to China (early 2004 in Canada). I knew I was in for dramatic change and wanted to capture it. I made a point of writing emails and journals full to the brim with details. That writing provided the treasure trove I drew from later.
For a long time after the accident I wanted to write for publication but couldn’t. Doing so would mean facing trauma. It wasn’t until joining a writers group in early 2010 that I was able to start. I wrote more than half a book, none of which deals with the time period covered in Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon. (That material shall be in my prequel.)
In 2012 I took coaching sessions with the woman who was to become my publisher, Julie Salisbury (Influence Publishing). She told me I had to start all over again, with the accident. (Gulp, now or never!) I decided to use actual journal entries, conversations, email correspondence, photographs, songs and dream work. I also decided to move back and forth in time and tell my story from a hospital bed. In that way it’s like The English Patient.
Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon is an engaging story. I know because I’ve been accused of keeping people up all night. The writing has a quality of immediacy, such that readers feel they’re right there with me—whether it’s lying on the sub-tropical sands of the “Island of Pianos” or being freed from wreckage with crowbars and carried up and down flights of stairs on a narrow board.
And of course, there is learning about the real China, in a book written by a Westerner who loves and respects the people of China.
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?
A: I did not try to find a publisher. I saw Julie for coaching before she even owned a publishing company. She was moved and inspired by my story. From there everything flowed, just like it was meant to be.
Q: What do you know now about the publishing business that you didn’t know when you started?
A: The industry is in a process of redefining itself. I knew this when I started but didn’t know just how rapid the changes were. Writers must work diligently on their own promotion. Utilizing the Internet is critical, a task daunting for many. It can also be daunting to know just who to hire. Money plus much time, energy and ingenuity seem to be necessary to meet with success.
Q: Have you been influenced by Chinese literature you have read? If so, in what ways?
A: My sensibilities have been influenced the most by the I Ching, an ancient book woven together with Taoist and Confucian teachings. It has helped me enormously, ever since I encountered it in the late 1980’s.
Twentieth century writers particularly influencing me include: Anchee Min (Red Azalea), Jung Chang (Wild Swans), Xin Ran (The Good Women of China), Amy Tan (Kitchen God’s Wife), Adeline Yen Mah (Watching the Tree), Lisa See (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), Han Suyin (A Mortal Flower) and Jan Wong (Red China Blues). These writers have all provided me with much insight into the lives of Chinese people, especially their own and other women’s. They’ve educated my mind and heart and helped me to understand China’s culture and way of viewing the world.
Q: In light of current global tensions, do you believe a true understanding between Chinese and Westerners will ever come about? If so, what concessions and compromises would be necessary from both sides?
A: A true understanding between Chinese and Westerners will take effort. I can’t know if it will come about but it’s my dream. I’m willing to do what I can to promote that possibility. For one, we need to recognize that we’re fed a lot of propaganda about China as they are about us. It’s important not to believe everything we hear and read, especially from politicians and mainstream media. They have their agendas which include nothing about heart-level understanding.
Westerners have to stop finger pointing. It does no one any good. China has a lot of problems. Any country with such a huge population developing so fast would have problems. Let’s develop compassion and a desire to build rather than destroy with our attitudes.
We ALL, everywhere, need to get over ourselves and get educated about each other—each other’s culture and different ways of perceiving the world. We need to see our common ground. This education does not have to be unpleasant at all. In fact, it can be fun. In the West, a great way to start experiencing Chinese culture is through literature, movies, music and food. Have conversations with Chinese people we meet. People in China: Don’t be shy to have conversations with the foreigners in your midst. If language is an issue, smile, be friendly and courteous. Chances are others will respond similarly. Curiosity can be a wonderful attribute. Travel is also awesome. Regular people, perhaps more than politicians, need to lead the way in understanding. And everyone, please remember: People are not their governments and people everywhere are individually unique. No one is a stereotype.
Q: As of this writing, your book is being considered by three book awards committees. Whether you are short-listed or not, how might being nominated help promote your purpose?
A: Award nominations and actual awards draw much attention to a book and increase the credibility of the writer. Many readers have already told me how moved and inspired they felt by Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China. When people feel moved and inspired, their hearts and minds open up at least a little more than before. True understanding is then more possible.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: Within a year I’d like to have my book translated into Chinese and on the market in Asia. I also want to write my prequel.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A: The Dalai Lama said that Western women will save the world—women because of their ability to nurture and respond with their hearts; Western because of their many hard won victories that women elsewhere have yet to experience. I believe it’s not only women who’ll serve as the world’s capable and compassionate “rescuers,” but also men who are not ashamed to own and honour their own gentler qualities.
Though my story may not “save the world,” I recognize its unique potential to promote understanding between us in the West and people in China. It’s a human heart to human heart understanding, the kind that leads to friendliness and good-will. My story reveals how communicating and opening to each other’s goodness can benefit us all.
In closing, I would like to invite people to visit my website, read the first few pages of my book (“Preview”) and listen to some of the music (“Soundtrack”) that helped me fall in love with a nation. http://ramonamckean.com Until then, “Xin xiang shi cheng”: May the dreams of your heart come true.